Boris Johnson and the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, met to run through possible options for averting another nationwide lockdown that could stall any potential economic recovery should there be a second wave of coronavirus infections.
The prime minister is considering new lockdown measures after a rise in Covid-19 cases forced him to slow the lockdown easing on Friday, with proposed relaxations for the leisure and beauty sectors delayed.
Sources said Johnson met with Sunak on Wednesday to run through various options that could be introduced.
But Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, played down reports of an expanded shielding programme for over-50s and a possible London-wide lockdown as “just speculation”.
The reports in two newspapers claimed plans were being assessed after a rise in Covid-19 cases forced the prime minister to slow the lockdown easing on Friday, with proposed relaxations for the leisure and beauty sectors delayed.
Jenrick told Times Radio: “You would expect the government to be considering all of the range of options that might be available.” But he said the mooted increase in shielding was “not something that is being actively considered”.
Asked whether there were plans to put London under lockdown if Covid-19 rates increased, he said: “Not as far as I’m aware.”
According to the Sunday Times, measures under consideration include asking older people to shield once again and lockdown-like conditions for London should there be a second wave.
Under the proposals, a greater number of people would be asked to take part in the shielding programme, based on their age or particular risk factors that have been identified since March, said the Telegraph.
It was claimed it could even lead to those aged between 50 and 70 given “personalised risk ratings”, in a move that would add to the 2.2 million people who were deemed most vulnerable and asked to shield themselves from society during the spring peak.
Shielding advice was only lifted on Saturday for those in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and remains in place until 16 August for those shielding in Wales.
It remains in place in specific regions of England, such as Leicester and parts of east Lancashire and West Yorkshire, which are subject to special restrictions.
Another of those regions is Greater Manchester, where on Sunday a major incident was declared in response to increases in coronavirus infection rates across “multiple localities”.
Major incidents mean a region can access extra national resources if necessary and create a centralised command to coordinate agencies.
Other possible measures that have been mooted should the R number escalate in the capital include restricting travel beyond the M25 and putting a stop to stays at other people’s houses – similar to policies in local lockdowns imposed in Leicester and parts of the north-west of England in recent days.
Downing Street sources distanced themselves from the detail in the reports, calling them “speculative”.
Jenrick said he expected schools to return to full capacity in September and he also distanced ministers from a reported internal debate over whether to close pubs again.
“I think you’re right to say that reopening schools and getting our children back into the classroom with that direct face-to-face contact with their teachers will be a priority for the government when we have to make those tough choices,” he said.
Scientists have speculated that ministers might have to order the closure of pubs, which were permitted to start serving again on 4 July, if schools are to reopen fully in September.
Prof Graham Medley, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said earlier a “trade-off” could be required if the prime minister’s pledge was to be met.
His comments followed remarks by Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, that the country was “near the limit” for opening up society following the coronavirus lockdown.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) was forced to deny it had abandoned its pledge to regularly test care home residents through the summer following a leaked memo from Prof Jane Cummings, the government’s adult social care testing director.
The government has been criticised for failing to do more to prevent Covid-19 infections from reaching care homes during the initial spring peak.
Cummings wrote to local authority leaders to inform them that “previously advised timelines for rolling out regular testing in care homes” were being altered because of “unexpected delays”.
Regular testing of residents and staff was meant to have started on 6 July but will be pushed back until 7 September for older people and those with dementia, PA Media reported.
A department spokeswoman confirmed there were issues with “asymptomatic retesting”.
The problems relate to a combination of factors, including a restraint on the ability to build testing kits, already announced issues with Randox swab kits, overall lab capacity, and greater than anticipated return rate of care home test kits.
The DHSC spokeswoman said: “It is completely wrong to suggest care homes were deliberately deprived of testing resources, and any care home resident or member of staff with symptoms can immediately access a free test.
“We continue to issue at least 50,000 tests a day to care homes across the country and prioritise tests for higher-risk outbreak areas.
“A combination of factors have meant that a more limited number of testing kits, predominantly used in care homes, are currently available for asymptomatic retesting and we are working round the clock with providers to restore capacity.”